More on Lamm and Kaddish


It’s been a few weeks since Rabbi Norman Lamm told the Jerusalem Post that it was time to say "Kaddish" for the liberal movements, but the issue is still reverberating. Today, we got this response from David Robinson, the president of the Union for Progressive Judaism (the Australian branch of the World Union for Progressive Judaism): “The report of our impending death is not only greatly exaggerated, it is completely incorrect."

Robinson goes on to accuse Lamm of basing his observation on something other than "fact," but the only fact Robinson cites is a survey of Israelis showing that 59% of secular Jews and 42% of traditional Jews said progressive or Conservative when asked which religious stream they feel closest to.

The full statement is below, but first a few observations.

Lamm and his critics are having very different discussions. One is about numbers. Another is about vitality, confidence, optimism — all important qualities and all immeasurable.

We can argue endlessly about the prudence and wisdom of Lamm making such a comment in public. His successor at Yeshiva University, Richard Joel, who transformed Hillel into an organization better capable of serving those liberal Jews on college campuses, almost certainly never would have.

But on the merits alone, Lamm’s observation, while arguable impolitic, is not without basis. Notwithstanding the current strength of Reform Judaism, America’s largest Jewish denomination, its future is cause for some concern. There’s the well known and recently updated study that showed that 100 Reform Jews will result in 10 identifying Jews in four generations. Conservative Jews did a little better, with 29. Ultra-Orthodox, by contrast, yield 3,401 Jews after four generations.

Then there’s the fact, which the progressives hint at in their statement, that growth in the liberal movements comes in part from the Jews they leech from Orthodoxy ("people who choose to move to a religious setting that is egalitarian and pluralistic.”) To liberals, that may seem like a vindication of their Jewish ideals, but it discounts the possibility that, for an Orthodox Jew who leaves the fold, Reform or Conservative Judaism may simply be a way station on the path to total assimilation. Arnold Eisen has noted that much of the hemorrhaging of movement numbers results from intermarried Jews who decamp for Reform synagogues when their Conservative rabbis won’t perform an intermarriage. Combine that observation with data about intermarried offspring and you see the problem.

In general, responses to Lamm have not addressed either point. They have focused instead on asserting the vigor of their movements, addressing their current states rather than their demographic futures. Julie Schonfeld, the incoming head of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, described the thrill she felt at seeing that more than half the rabbis at the AIPAC convention this year were Conservative. Andy Sacks, the RA head in Israel, pointed to full summer camps and day schools. All of which is true, but not the point. As Conservatives especially know, the issue is the trend numbers, and the news isn’t good.

None of which is to say that the liberal denominations are going to die or disappear. That’s unlikely. But if current trends persist, Orthodoxy is going to become the dominant sector of the American Jewish community in the decades ahead.

Other remarks Lamm made in the interview, in particular his comment about homosexuals who “proselytize,” indicates there is something more than a little dated about his views. The day may come when the notion of declining numbers liberal Jews may appear equally so. But that day is not yet here.


Union for Progressive Judaism refutes claim by Yeshiva head

“The report of our impending death is not only greatly exaggerated, it is completely incorrect” said UPJ President, David Robinson paraphrasing Mark Twain’s words in response to claims by Yeshiva University Chancellor Rabbi Norman Lamm that “The Reform and Conservative Movements are disappearing”.  In an interview with the Jerusalem Post Rabbi Lamm said "With a heavy heart we will soon say Kaddish on the Reform and Conservative Movements."

“While it is unfortunate that Rabbi Lamm took an opportunity to criticise two major groups of people within the Jewish people, the reality is that his comments are not based on fact” said Robinson.  “His observations are based on 2001 research in the USA on Synagogue affiliation which showed a small increase in synagogue affiliation in the Progressive movement (up 3% to 38%) and a 4% increase in Orthodox affiliation to 22%.  His dismissal of people who are of Jewish birth through their father and choose to live a Jewish life as ‘goyim’ is a sad comment on his ignorance of what is involved.  Further it also ignores the fact that much of the growth in the Progressive movement comes from people who choose to move to a religious setting that is egalitarian and pluralistic.”

“With regard to the rest of the world he is even more misinformed and inaccurate” said UPJ Executive Director, Steve Denenberg, “A recent survey in Israel showed that when asked the question “what stream of Judaism do you feel closest to” only 10% of secular Israelis and 32% of ‘traditional’ Jewish Israelis said “Orthodox” whereas 59% of secular Jews and 42% of traditional Jews said Progressive or Conservative”.

“In our own region, at a time when many Orthodox synagogues are losing members and failing to find Rabbis that reflect the religious and spiritual needs of their congregations, the Progressive movement continues to go from strength to strength. We have recently welcomed new congregations and are currently developing and nurturing other groups of Jews throughout the region seeking to express their link with Jewish traditions in a contemporary context” says Denenberg.

“What is most sad about this statement is that, even it were true, that he should have said it at all” Denenberg added “The ironic “it is with heavy heart” thinly covers the rabbi’s apparent pleasure at the possible demise of significant streams of Judaism. As it is most likely that the people who would affected by this will not choose orthodoxy as an alternative it must mean that he would prefer the millions of people affiliated to these movements to have no Jewish affiliation.” 

“Rather than celebrating the fictitious demise of authentic Jewish movements perhaps Rabbi Lamm should maybe be trying to find ways of different Jewish groups focussing on our common beliefs and shared values”.

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